What Makes It Necessary?
Ellen Cranitch on recent pamphlets
Alan Jenkins, Paper-Money Lyrics, Grey Suit
Isabel Palmer, Ground Signs, Flarestack
Katrina Naomi, Hooligans, Rack
Mark Fiddes, The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre, Templar
Gale Burns, Opal Eye, Eyewear
Jaqueline Saphra, If I Lay on my Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women, Emma
The peculiar endorsement ‘these are necessary poems’ is often used to extol poetry’s worth. It’s given here on the back of Isabel Palmer’s pamphlet, Ground Signs. But what is ‘a necessary poem’? The phrase is riven with imprecision. Weight of subject-matter alone – be it Palmer’s war poetry, or Katrina Naomi’s women’s history – is not in itself enough. Nor is the confessional urge; the imperative behind a therapeutic impulse to write shouldn’t be confused with the finished product. And, if Alan Jenkins’ poems here had no merit other than a confessional motive, they’d hold little interest. Fortunately this isn’t the case. There’s a different kind of necessity at work in a good poem which is instantly recognizable, an internal necessity. It arises when all the elements of the poetic are put in the service of a truth which could have been arrived at and expressed in no other way.
In Alan Jenkins’ pamphlet Paper-Money Lyrics, the poem ‘Song of Maine’ stands out. An elegiac lyric of love and regret voiced by a poet in extremis, it probes whether truths recognized in midlife could have been glimpsed when younger. Its power arises from the consummate marriage of form and content and from the way in which it harnesses multiple poetic resources to articulate its theme. Ambitious rhyme scheme and fluctuant meter reflect the ebb and flow of thought. The work is a meditative realization into which insights about intimacy and loneliness break like a wave; a poem in which the question of foreknowledge, here rendered so urgently through the nagging, colloquial repetition, ‘Could I have known, could I have seen…’ rises, an uplift, against the tug of meter and rhyme. The answer comes in the simplest of words:
How much, how much
I’d need you
The intimate voice, simple refrain, the line-break necessitating the emotion’s extension, through white space, in time, and the quiet rhyme as ‘much’ brings forth its ghost-partner ‘touch’ – all of these give the poem its vivid authenticity.
Many voices came into my mind when reading Jenkins’ pamphlet,
and, in a sequence littered with acts of ventriloquism and interjection, they weren’t confined to the ones breaking into the poems. Echoes of Auden and MacNeice are heard in the sheer metrical versatility and virtuosic rhymes which fuel the rollicking ballads. And, while the tour de force that is ‘Shark Song’ evokes MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’ in particular, Auden is sensed in the pervasive tonal atmosphere: a low level anxiety as the poetry knits personal and political, pits stress against melody, opts for the uneasy trochaic. There are echoes of Eliot, too in that haunting ‘Song of Maine’ with its coastline of ragged line-ends reminiscent of ‘Marina’, but it was Yeats I thought of most when reading the pamphlet, Yeats’ celebrated dictum that poetry arises out of a quarrel with the self.
Paper-Money Lyrics is one long argument with the self, a reckoning of lived life from the perspective of middle age, an exploration of:
the sudden sense that life could fail To be that richer riskier thing I knew Before the years of drift, in the years of sail; (‘Inshore’)
The numerous voices interrupting the poems are the moral accountants, the carriers of this midlife reckoning. Notable among them and preying on the poet’s own sense of self-reproach, is the poet’s grandfather who bookends the sequence, lambasting the poet for all his life choices. The pamphlet is distinguished by the unflinching honesty of its self-interrogation and by its utter conviction as to the absolute significance of poetry. Only poetry can ask, answer, possibly even exorcise, the most difficult of life’s questions. All of poetry’s resources must be corralled to do this and this poet is skilled enough to enact that. The crystalline authenticity of the most personal work results from the pressure of poem on poet. Typically, the constraints and momentum of rhyme, meter and form furnish an inexorable development which, working in tandem with the interpolating voices, lead the poet, forcing him to confront difficult truths. Palpably felt in ‘Song of Maine’, this is intensely apparent too in the seductive ‘South Country’, drenched in the flavours of a sharply defined 1960s Paris. With its propulsive tetrameter and virtuosic rhyme (‘orange’ with ‘Francis Ponge’), its hard-earned honesty is almost tangible.
There’s a strong erotic energy to a number of the poems and the pamphlet is notable also for the risks it takes with graphic sexual subject matter. It’s a tricky balance – creating work about the objectification of women that doesn’t objectify women – and to my mind, of these poems, the sex-trafficking piece, Import/Export, is the most successful. The sequence of poems on Reality TV compel for their modus operandi. Acerbic and fast, they pivot on the concept of complicity; with the suddenness of a whip-crack you find you’ve been implicated just when you thought you were safe.
Written in response to her son’s deployment in Afghanistan, the poems in Isabel Palmer’s Ground Signs are remarkable for their distilled poise and spare precision of language. The best, such as the immensely moving final poem, ‘Repatriation,’ carry a rare authority and intense emotional charge due to this observer’s detachment. The opening of ‘Repatriation’, ‘On Wootton Bassett High Street, Monet paints / straight to canvas’, with its urgent, repeated consonants and densely-woven vowels, exhibits Palmer’s trademark strengths, an assured musicality alongside a vivid, metaphoric cast of mind which fuels the luminous detail of lines like ‘He paints / the biker’s red bandana bright // as wet pebbles’ as well as the final, heartbreaking image, as Monet, painting, ‘hides / the loved and lost in shadows so deep / and full of colour, they struggle to stand.’
Other strengths include the non-judgmental stance manifested in Palmer’s use of words from Dari and Pashto, such as the achingly provocative thought in the lines, ‘one word, dest / for the arm that’s lost, and the hand / that took it’ and the deft articulation of the way the mind works – mundane thoughts coexisting with anxiety – in ‘Worse Case Scenario’. If the poems are simple structurally – in general, no complicated syntactical argument is pursued – they linger, an arrestingly dignified series of meditations.
Katrina Naomi’s Hooligans uses personal family history – the poet’s great grandmother’s involvement with the Women’s Social and Political Union – as a springboard to explore the militant struggle for women’s suffrage. In a satisfying amalgam of personal and political the pamphlet radiates out from the great grandmother’s story to those of other Suffragettes. The challenge for the poet writing about violence, as Seamus Heaney and Don Paterson on Harold Pinter have famously voiced, is to ensure appropriate poetic transformation of the material. Heaney summed it up in his celebrated phrase – we must find ‘symbols adequate to our predicament’. Paterson, speaking of Pinter’s poetry on the Iraq war, puts it a different way, maintaining it’s not enough just to write ‘big sweary outbursts’. Most of Naomi’s poems meet this challenge triumphantly, particularly the opening work which makes a potently original analogy between a Suffragette and a chimney. A series of hard-hitting, resonant verbs, such as ‘belch forth’, suggesting formless gobbets of speech, evoke the hinterland of violence and suffering that is this pamphlet’s raison d’etre. The poem packs its punch with great economy ending on a deft pun on ‘house’ conjuring Commons as well as the home. The same transformative metaphoric strain is evident in a poem on window smashing, which runs with the word ‘scrimmage’. Exploiting the word’s myriad attributes, the poem lays down a metaphoric seam that rolls with the verbs and the nouns pithily unifying the lines of free verse. The absence of a transforming metaphor may explain why, of the ten poems here, the most literal, the force-feeding monologue, ‘The Assault’, is the least resonant.
Mark Fiddes’ pamphlet, The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre, is a delight. The poems are characterized by a brio most evident in killer first lines such as ‘Dodging the drift of the witless’ (‘The Eternal Recurrence of Northbound Trains’) or ‘More photocopy than dog’ (‘The Existence of Dog’). The work casts a satirical eye over history, politics and contemporary culture from the daily tube commute, to the Chelsea Flower Show to the beautifully modulated ‘Solo Doloroso’ about George Clooney’s wedding:
‘He’s been taken’, she says,
‘by a human rights lawyer.
‘It’s just not fair.’
She attempts to stack
the mechanically unstackable
metallic capsules of coffee
which tumble like command modules
from a failed lunar landing.
Typically developing via a surreal imaginative leap, the poems will often take a mundane starting point and reframe it. There’s much pleasure to be gleaned from these translocations but I liked the more subdued transitions as well, for example ‘Sons of the Golden Section’ which applies a father’s fondness for mathematical principles in nature to the love he metes out to his sons. Sometimes, as in the concrete poem ‘From Siberia’ with its delicate opening image, ‘these geese trail / winter like needles pulling thread / through sailcloth’, a poem won’t live up to the promise of the first stanza but overall there’s much to enjoy and be provoked by in this punchy, award-winning assembly.
Finally, pamphlets by two stalwarts of the poetry showcase, Shuffle. Gale Burns’ Opal Eye has a gentle gravity borne of its palpable seriousness of purpose. Poetic conceits of being in transit – the hitchhiker, the childrens’ playground –are employed to explore rites of passage and the fluid nature of time. ‘Ringstead Bay’, for example, which locates itself in the suction of a vivid, childhood present, ‘the world…bleached by sun, a heavy throat of sea…’ probes, like Jenkins’ poetry, ‘if we could have foretold what such days would precede…’ The most memorable work such as ‘The Present,’ set in war-torn France, evoking an unsung act of kindness – old women braving the streets to milk abandoned cows – brings illuminatingly slant viewpoints to familiar subjects.
The title of Jacqueline Saphra’s illustrated prose poems, If I Lay on my Back I Saw Nothing but Naked Women, gives a fair indication of the compelling originality of these highly imaginative riffs on parents, step-parents and childhood. Striking linocuts by artist Mark Andrew Webber match the prose poems’ technicolour moods as the work explores the primal territory of childhood emotion. Full of exquisite phrase-making – the first piece opens, ‘When I was a child I tied my mother and father together with bandages and put a song in their mouths’ – the work is by turns moving, disturbing and funny as it traces its narrative of a passion for words through terrain that’s tender, explosive and bizarre.